Back in the 1950s, Harry Harlow of the University of Wisconsin conducted an important study of baby monkeys at his research lab in Goon Park.
The purpose of Harlow’s study was to see under which conditions did baby rhesus monkeys best thrive.
For the experiment, Harlow used wire frames to create two kinds of surrogate mothers. He presented these artificial moms to infants who had been separated from their real mothers shortly after birth.
One “monkey mom” had its bare wire frame exposed and offered a bottle of milk. The other surrogate had no milk but was covered by a terry-cloth padding to which the baby monkey could cling.
Interestingly the baby monkeys who later thrived had spent more time holding on to the terry cloth padding (simulating mother-baby cuddling) — not the babies exposed to the wire mom with the milk bottle and no padding.
What do we learn from this? The study suggests by extension that human contact such as hugging and touching is far more important than previously known.
Harlow’s research emphasized the importance of mother-child bonding. Not only does the child look to his mother for basic needs such as food, safety, and warmth, but he also needs to feel love, acceptance and affection from the caregiver.
The researcher’s findings also exposed some of the long-term psychological physical damage resulting from inadequate attentiveness to a child’s needs.
And so we must remind ourselves to hug our loved ones — seniors, friends, our children and teens (as hard as that may be sometimes). Hugs boost our immune system, bring important feelings of comfort and security, and contribute to our ability to thrive.
For some people hugging is a normal as breathing, but for others the ritual may be perceived as invasive.
Younger children need and expect regular hugs from their parents or caregivers, but as they get older, an “invitation” becomes important. This leads to an agreement to hug between two people.
The key is to inquire, before hugging, “May I give you a hug?” — especially when addressing older children or adults. With teenage boys who feel embarrassed by their mom’s wish to give hugs, perhaps dad can step in and provide some needed bear-hugs.
Don’t forget to ask for hugs from your loved ones as well. Remember, we all need them!